At the finish line

meet the author

At the finish line

Amitav Ghosh was in Bengaluru to release the third and final book in his Ibis Trilogy, Flood of Fire. In a relaxed chat over cups of Darjeeling tea prepared by the author himself, he spoke to Sunday Herald. Excerpts from the interview:

The Ibis Trilogy has now come to an end, after more than 10 years... A sense of relief or a sense of disappointment that the saga is over?

It’s really a sense of great fulfillment. I feel I had started off on a very, very long journey, and I feel it’s been a wonderful journey... these 10 years of finding out amazing things, doing this research, but also living with these characters. Not just the book, but also in other ways it’s been an incredibly fulfilling time. That’s the part that really stays with me — a profound sense of fulfillment.

Is there also a sense of emptiness, a ‘what next’ kind of feeling?

Not at all, not at all. In these 10 years, because I have been so focused on this book, I have put aside so many small projects, so many ideas — now they are all pouring out of my head.

More than 10 years on these three books! Of course, you’re a writer, so your whole heart and soul must be in writing... but it’s a huge chunk of your life!

(Smiles in agreement) Yes, it’s a quarter of my adult life! Especially nowadays, when everyone is working on small things and doing things fast, it was like the world was going on in one direction and I was going in another. I often felt that time was leaving me behind! But perhaps that gave me a sense of fulfillment, really — that I was doing something that I want to do, that is mine, that has come entirely around my thinking, my ways of working.

The material for this story — there were old war-despatches, finding old manuscripts — but how did the story start in your mind?

The story started with the Sea of Poppies, when I started working on Deeti, the character who leaves for Mauritius... so the story started in another direction, but the way it evolved led me more and more into the events of Flood of Fire. It’s not that I had to find manuscripts. Much of the material was available. But no historian has actually compiled a military history of the First Opium War. So I had to dig out all the primary sources — memoirs, battle despatches — and from that try and piece together what happened. I had to piece together how many fighting men were here, what were the weapons used, what were the ships present...

That process itself must haveconsumed you...

Yes, it’s a long process... you’re reading dozens of memoirs, all these letters, despatches; you have to match them against each other and see if they fit.

Often the versions were conflicting. Say for example, a ship in battle: One ship is giving you a certain account, and another ship is giving you a different account. So you have to work out that the ship was THERE, and this is what they were seeing, whereas this ship was HERE, and this is what they were seeing...

With so much history and research, where do you break away from giving an account of what happened years ago — which is recounting history — to tell your story?

It’s not that difficult, really. History is like the scaffolding, the background, and you are writing against it. For example, if you were writing a novel about today’s Bangalore, you would have to have a map of Bangalore and figure out what is where. So the character wanders around Bangalore, but in the background is a map of what everything is. In this case (the Ibis Trilogy), it is reconstructing that map, but the characters make their own way through this map.

There was a picture of you with your mother recently. Does she read all your books?

My mother is 84 years old, and yes, she reads all my books. She reads them and re-reads them!

How much of an influence did she and your father have on your reading and eventually, your writing?

My parents were both big readers, and they encouraged me to read a lot. I think that had a lot to do with it. I would NOT call them intellectual, because they were certainly not, but they just read for pleasure.

What is your writing process? Do you have a set target of number of words, or hours?

No, no, no! I never have a target. The really interesting thing about writing is that every day you’re thinking about something else, working on a different passage; it varies constantly.

Is there a favourite place, a favourite city where you like to write?

I love working in my house in Goa; I find it makes me productive.

The susegad flavour of Goa perhaps helps you to write well?

You know, I think people have the wrong impression of Goa! Goans themselves provide the wrong impression of Goa sometimes. Even this ‘Goa is famous for its susegad.’ I think Goans are very hardworking people! And I am also a very hardworking person, so in that sense I find it very congenial in Goa.

There is talk of your books being made into films...

Actually, two of my books are under option for films: The Hungry Tide and The Calcutta Chromosome. Many filmmakers have also talked about Sea of Poppies. Let’s see what comes of it...

One of the many things your trilogy reflects is the power and greed of traders who are virtually running the war. As you said in your book, “...hundreds of lives depend on bribes...” In this context, what is your take on present-day India? Nothing seems to have changed, really, in all these years.

Well, it’s not just India, but all over the world... what we see everywhere. In England, in America... a few corporations seem to exercise enormous influence over politics. I don’t think it’s just India, this has become the pattern of the world. What we also see is that there has also been an incredible growth in inequality.

What next?

I am working on these short non-fiction books. I have a lot to do, shall we say! (Laughs) This is far from being ‘the end!’

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